Friday, January 16, 2004

Sid Blumenthal on the [late] Paul O'Neill 

The attack on [O'Neill], consistent with Bush administration efforts to intimidate anyone who challenges the official version, underscores the inherent fragility of Bush's public persona, upon which rests his popularity. Bush's greatest political asset is his image as a strong, decisive and masterful commander in chief who also happens to be a nice man. Alongside him, Vice President Dick Cheney is viewed as the sagacious Nestor. Unlike other critics and the Democratic candidates, O'Neill's persuasiveness -- and the long-term damage he is likely to do to these icons -- comes from having served for years in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and in his firsthand critique of a government radically unlike any before it, especially Republican ones. O'Neill's threat is to a president unusually dependent in an election campaign on fear and credibility to sustain the sense of power and inevitability.

O'Neill's firsthand account, however, Bush appears as a bully, using nicknames to demean people. He appears querulous (When Bush orders a cheeseburger and it doesn't arrive quickly, he summons his chief of staff. "'You're the chief of staff. You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?' Card nodded. No one laughed. He all but raced out of the room"). He appears manipulated ("'Stick to principle' is another phrase that has a tonic effect on Bush" -- it was used by his senior political advisor Karl Rove to push for additional tax cuts). He appears incurious and, above all, intently political. When Bush holds forth it is often to demonstrate that he's not Clinton. He informs his NSC that on Middle East peace "Clinton overreached," but that he will take Ariel Sharon "at face value," and will not commit himself to the peace process: "I don't see much we can do over there at this point. I think it's time to pull out of that situation." Powell is "startled," but Bush reverts in the meeting to "the same flat, unquestioning demeanor that O'Neill was familiar with."

The "inscrutable" Cheney emerges as the power behind the throne, orchestrating the government by stealth and leaks to undermine opposing views. He uses tariffs as "political bait" for the midterm elections. When O'Neill argues that out-of-control deficits will cause a "fiscal crisis," Cheney "cut him off. 'Reagan proved deficits don't matter,' he said. 'We won the midterms. This is our due.'"

In the end, Cheney fires O'Neill, the first time a vice president has ever dismissed a Cabinet member.

O'Neill's revelations have not been met by any factual rebuttal. Instead, they have been greeted with anonymous character assassination from a "senior official": "Nobody listened to him when he was in office. Why should anybody now?" Then the White House announced that O'Neill was under investigation for abusing classified documents, though he claimed they were not and the White House had eagerly shoveled carefully edited NSC documents to Woodward.

Quietly, O'Neill and his publisher have prepared an irrefutable response. Soon they will post every one of the 19,000 documents underlying the book on the Internet. The story will not be calmed.
Full story.


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